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Civilians in Homs, Hama caught between warring sides

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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Fighters from the Jaish al-Izza opposition faction battle the Syrian regime in rural Homs. [Photo courtesy of Faisal al-Ahmad]

The Syrian regime has warned civilians in rural Homs and Hama to leave those areas and head to regime checkpoints if they wish to save their lives.

Residents of the two northern provinces have expressed alarm at this warning, activists told Diyaruna, as this means they are caught between two pincers.

They must either flee towards regime-controlled areas, which leaves them vulnerable to intensive scrutiny or arrest, or remain in the areas outside the regime’s control and face the dangers of military operations.

Regime helicopters dropped leaflets over towns and villages in Homs and Hama for a second day on Wednesday (April 25th), calling on civilians to leave the area as quickly as possible and to head to regime-controlled areas.

The leaflets directed them to head specifically to regime-controlled checkpoints, ahead of a planned military operation, activist Faisal al-Ahmad told Diyaruna.

"It is difficult for civilians to relocate at present," he said, because any areas outside regime control are themselves coming under airstrikes and attacks. Many also fear they will be subject to arrest or other punitive measures upon their arrival to regime-controlled areas.

Clashes continue as negotiations stall

Northern rural Homs and southern rural Hama are areas of overlapping control by a number of armed opposition groups, chiefly Tahrir al-Sham, the largest and most powerful alliance in the region, which is dominated by the former al-Nusra Front (ANF).

All opposition factions in the area are fighting under a joint operations room established in early April, the "Unified Command in the Central Region", al-Ahmad said.

"The battle is under way on several axes, primarily Ezzeddine-Salim-al-Hamrat, as well as on the western outskirts of al-Salmiyah, where regime forces that tried to advanced suffered significant casualties," he said.

"This portends retaliatory action on the part of the regime and allied militias," he added.

Some clashes took place in those areas more than a week ago, and all military operations have now stopped, he said, as the regime attempts to reach a settlement with opposition groups through Russia.

Any settlement would take a similar form to those reached with opposition factions in Eastern Ghouta and Qalamoun, he said.

The regime retook control of Eastern Qalamoun on Wednesday after the last opposition fighters and civilians were bussed out of the region under an evacuation deal, AFP reported.

Negotiations in Homs and Hama have stalled, however, due to numerous disagreements over the terms of the agreement, especially with regard to the handover of weapons and evacuation to northern Syria, al-Ahmad said.

No new date has been set for their resumption.

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